Ask Eartha: The truth about light bulbs |

Ask Eartha: The truth about light bulbs

by Eartha Steward

Eartha, What is all this I’m hearing about the toxic mercury mess in a CFL (Compact Fluorescent Light bulb) and the government requiring us to buy CFLs? Do I need to get a hazmat suit?

-Scared Susie

Hi Scared Susie,

In 2012 the light bulbs you buy in the store will be more efficient. That part is true! Some weird and inaccurate information was tossed around during the debate over a congressional bill meant to repeal recent lighting standards, and we think this might be the cause of your confusion. We’re here to set the record straight.

Myth number 1: Federal light bulb efficiency standards will require you to buy CFLs.

Not true. Congress did pass the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, which requires a 25-30 percent increase in efficiency in bulbs. It will take effect in 2012. Bulbs are required to be more efficient, but they can be incandescent, CFLSs, LEDs or whatever else works. Lots of incandescent bulbs pass the efficiency test. If bulbs do not meet the standards, manufacturers cannot sell them. Manufacturers have had years to prepare. These efficiency improvements are expected to save consumers billions of dollars in energy costs, not to mention the environmental benefits.

Myth number 2: CFLs result in more mercury released into the air than incandescent.

In the lifetime of a bulb, compared to incandescent, CFLs actually reduce overall mercury emitted into the atmosphere. This is because their power demand is so much lower, and coal-fired power plants are the largest man-made source of mercury. Mercury is released into the atmosphere when coal is burned to make electricity.

Over 8,000 hours of use, a newer CFL results in a total of 1.8 mg of mercury released into the atmosphere, whereas an incandescent bulb results in 5.9 mg. All of the mercury produced by the incandescent is released by power plants during the energy production process. For the CFL, some mercury, .6 mg according to the EPA, is emitted when the CFL is broken or disposed of. This is the mercury released in your home if you break the bulb. A few years ago, a CFL contained an average of 4 mg, now it’s less than 1 mg. For comparison, thermometers contain about 500 mg of Mercury and older thermostats contain 3,000 mg of mercury.

Myth number 3: You need a hazmat suit if you break a CFL in your house.

The EPA recommends airing out your house and getting rid of the broken pieces (do not vacuum). We recommend not breaking the bulb in the first place. There is no question that mercury is a hazardous substance, so it is an important question to ask. But I don’t think the clean up procedures are all that scary. To see what the EPA says, check out their website: Similarly, if you spilled a can of paint you would likely air out your house and clean it up properly, not call a hazmat team. For now, the experts tell us that the mercury potentially released in your home by breaking a CFL will not harm occupants. When you do get rid of a CFL, broken or unbroken, Bighorn Ace in Silverthorne will recycle them (for free).

Please submit questions and comments to Eartha at For more information about sustainable and local food programs in Summit County, visit

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